Extremely unproblematic and unbiased movie reviews. ('Sleepaway Camp' (1983) dir. Robert Hiltzik, 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991) dir. Jonathan Demme).

'Tis the season for horror movies- my favourite season. Horror is such a big and beautiful genre, one of the hardest to classify. Recently, the rather dull term 'elevated horror' has come to the forefront as a classification which is, I suppose, a re-invention of the classic 'low-art' and 'high-art' labels. Elevated horror is emotional, metaphorical, and unreliant on jump-scares or gore (though will use jump-scares and gore anyway, in sparing moments, which are praised where things like franchise horror are criticised for doing so). The term is completely pointless because it assumes that so called 'low-art' horror does not also have emotional depth, or deeper metaphorical meaning. Indeed, the only films that seem to receive the label of 'elevated horror' are the ones where you don't have to put work in to ascertain some dual meaning, because it's fairly obvious that the film is about, say, trauma (as if all horror movies, low or high, are not in some way about trauma).

Regardless, there are two films which I consider to be fantastic horror films. One, 'Sleepaway Camp', would be called 'low-art'- a cheaply-made, poorly-acted, exploitative summer camp slasher. The other, 'Silence of the Lambs', would probably be considered 'elevated horror' were it not for the fact that the people using the term unironically are mostly uninterested in films made prior to the 2000's, and ones which a24 haven't had a hand in producing. It's a well-made detective story that's polished to a gleam- an auteur at the helm- and has a lot to say about women in male dominated industries (messages that you don't have to look very deep to receive). I'm being deliberately sardonic about both, by the way- I truly think they're both masterpieces. Despite their differences in style, production, and reception, the two have something else in common that's not my favour. They both feature ostensible trans women as villains. Here's where I am going to include the disclaimer that I myself am transgender. I love both of these villains.

'Sleepaway Camp' follows Angela Baker, a shy and withdrawn preteen girl, a selective mute for the majority of the run-time. When she was younger, she witnessed the death of her twin brother Peter and her father in a boating accident. The family were holiday-ing by a lake, and accompanying them was Angela's father's boyfriend. After the incident, Angela moved in with her cousin Ricky and Aunt Martha, who sends the pair to a summer camp (Camp Arawak) near the lake where the deaths she witnessed in childhood transpired. At the camp, Angela is mercilessly victimised for her shy nature. She refuses to eat, and is almost sexually assaulted by the camp cook. She refuses to speak, or engage in any camp activities, and draws bullying from both a fellow camper, and one of the counsellors. In all of these cases, the main interventionist is Angela's cousin Ricky, who stands up for her. Another counsellor, Susie, is sympathetic toward Angela, but not enough to put an end to Angela's torment in any meaningful way. Therefore, when Angela's bullies are picked off one by one by an unseen assailant, Ricky, as the primary defender of his cousin, is the prime suspect. Angela is also pursued romantically by one of Ricky's friends, Paul, who is initially nice to her, but becomes frustrated that she's not exactly, well, jumping his bones.

In the final scene of the movie, a camp-wide lockdown is called after the full-extent of the murders is discovered. Angela and Paul are missing, so Susie and head-counsellor Ronnie go looking for them. They find the pair at the lake's edge, led there by the sound of Angela humming. A flashback shows us that it was actually Peter, rather than Angela, who survived the boating accident, and that Aunt Martha had merely raised Peter as Angela because she had always wanted a daughter, and she already had a son in Ricky. Right after this, Angela is also revealed as the murderer. She stands, fully-nude and covered in blood (Paul's severed head, which she had in her lap, falls to the ground). She is making animalistic growling noises at Susie and Ronnie, the latter of whom exclaims: "she's a boy!" as the camera dollies out to reveal Angela's penis.

Angela is played by Felissa Rose. The ending scene was achieved with the help of practical FX master Ed French, who created a latex mask of Felissa Rose's face, complete with glass eyes. In the final scene, this mask is worn by an unnamed adult male body double.

I couldn't really give a damn that Angela could be perceived as negative trans representation because she's a murderer. She's the antagonist of the movie. She's the slasher killer. This comes with the territory. I find the discussion of queer characters being negative representative models if they are villains or murderers a bit trite and overplayed at this point. No one gets up in arms because that pesky Michael Myers is killing again, because people understand that he's a villain, and love him for it. Yes, Angela's character is exploitative- most queer murderers are- but the inverse, horror where queer characters are only on the side of good, are victims, and have strong moral compasses, is extremely boring. Horror is not built like that. To pretend it is would go be bending genre-classifications to pretend that all trans people are angels, pure. It's infantilising and extremely dull. So, I'll never solely have a problem with villains who are simply transgender. Other cliches that Angela falls into are arguably far more damaging. The tired trope of a trans child being co-erced by a parental figure to transition, for example, even though the inverse is far more common (the sequels clear this up, actually. Angela is said to have willingly undergone a 'sex-change operation' prior to the events of 'Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers'). That trauma (witnessing the death of your father and sister) causes queer behaviour is also an indefensible one. These plot-points deserve far more discussion than the frequented 'Angela is bad because she killed people in a slasher movie'.

And in terms of negatively presenting its trans-coded character, 'Sleepaway Camp' doesn't stop there- the movie's ending is excessively dehumanising. It throws ninety minutes of audience identification with Angela out of the window because of that stupid latex mask. 'Sleepaway Camp' had a small budget. It also approaches its 40-year anniversary. Understandably, the practical effects are dated and off-putting. The colour of French's mask does not match the skin tone of the wearer, and its rigid screaming expression falls into the uncanny valley. Freud read the term 'uncanny' to mean something familiar turned unfamiliar. This is very fitting; Angela, shy and gentle, was who we followed for the majority of the plot, and now we are shown artificial Angela. The added growling noises (in contrast to the expression Angela wears, which suggests a scream) are the cherry on top. When she does speak in the film, she is soft-spoken, not guessed to be capable of the animalistic groaning noises she is now making. Having these uncanny elements in play when it is revealed that Angela's sex is at odds with her gender presentation is far more compelling of transphobia than any murders the film would have her commit. The trans body is shown as inhuman.

However, I can still be defensible. For Angela to have a human narrative in 'Sleepaway Camp' would mean for her to be just like everyone else. This would mean she would either be like her fellow campers, who torment her throughout the narrative, or as uncaring as the people who work at the camp: in 'Sleepaway Camp', to be human is to be ableist, homophobic, sexist, ill-tempered, or paedophilic. The slasher sub-genre's archetypal final girl is also distinct from her oftentimes cruel or gauche peers. Through her markers of distinctiveness, she denies universality and becomes a strong identificatory component within the narrative. Before the Angela-is-Peter reveal, it seems that the final girl is set to be Angela; the narrative follows her struggles to fit in at camp. She's an outcast. Her final girl marker of distinctiveness, even before the reveal, is her other-ness. Angela is identificatory because she is trans. The final images of the film see the camera pull away from Angela (exploitatively showing her body), and move in on the shocked reactions of Susie and Ronnie, suggesting an identification switch. But can this undo a whole films worth of sympathy? What more, why should a trans character only be relatable through sympathy? Angela is at her most agent during the final images of the film, like it or not.

It feels silly to write so much in defence of Angela Baker, because it's not an unpopular opinion that Angela is a sympathetic villain despite her exploitative movie. People actually do like her. A far more problematic villain (so much so that people tend to cling to one line said by notedly trustworthy psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter to exonerate her of her trans status) is 'The Silence of the Lambs's Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill.

'The Silence of the Lambs' follows Clarice Starling, FBI trainee, pulled from her studies by the head of Behavioural Sciences, Jack Crawford, who is investigating a murderer the press has dubbed Buffalo Bill (because his victims are found skinned). Crawford's assignment for Clarice is to glean information about Bill from the incarcerated murderer cannibal Hannibal Lecter (previously a psychiatrist), whom she interviews frequently throughout the narrative. Although advised not to by Crawford, Clarice trades personal information with Lecter for clues to Bill's identity. Lecter tells Clarice that Bill kills because he desires change. Clarice sees where he's going with this and tells him that there's no correlation in any literature she's read between transsexualism and violence. Lecter agrees, but tells her that Bill is not a 'true transsexual', but tries to be. Clarice eventually finds Bill, who is a tailor named Jame Gumb, and discovers that he is skinning his female victims in order to fashion a 'women suit'. In doing so, she saves one of Gumb's would-be victims. She later graduates from the FBI academy, but in all the kerfuffle, Hannibal Lecter escapes prison.

'Silence' was adapted from Thomas Harris's 1988 novel of the same title- the novel also includes dialogue from Lecter exonerating Jame Gumb of her trans status: "Billy's not a real transsexual," Lecter tells Clarice (p187). Screenwriter Ted Tally, allegedly for the sake of making the plot more Clarice-centric, cut scenes from the novel detailing Gumb's past. That his mother was an alcoholic, that he was abused in foster homes, that he killed his grandparents and obsessed over what he thought was a tape of his mother- he found her beautiful and wanted to be like her, despite not knowing her, is the novels explanation for his trans characteristics (p411-412). Director Jonathan Demme has said some interesting things about what drew him to the project; namely that he felt it was a 'women's picture', and enjoyed that it was an underdog story. He liked that it was anti-patriarchal, and has also defended the movie against claims of homophobia and transphobia.

So, Lecter doesn't think that Jame is transgender, but Jame believes she is (she wants to be, she tries to be). "Character A considers themself to be transsexual; character B does not think that character A is transsexual." Lack of acknowledgement of a self-identified trans status doesn't wholly invalidate it, especially when the opposition for it comes from Hannibal fucking Lecter, of all people. There is a man who definitely does not lie and manipulate to get what he wants. That Lecter is a psychiatrist, or that it is explained that Jame was denied gender-affirming surgery, are both beside the point. These things do not stop people from being trans. In fact, early evaluative procedures at Johns Hopkins were pretty much 'medical gatekeeping' to a tee. Designed to exclude those who weren't gender-typical, who weren't straight, and who weren't neurotypical. The Jame of the 'Silence' movie has had her backstory stripped back: Lecter only says that she was 'made a monster through years of systematic abuse'. I'll put it plainly- movie Jame was rejected for surgery on the basis of having childhood trauma. Clarice rejecting Lecter's notion that Buffalo Bill could be associated with transsexualism by saying that "transsexuals are very passive," also shows shades of the 'cis-heteronormative' standards of femininity trans women were expected to fit in order to access medical help. The information present in the narrative does not conclusively prove that Jame is not a trans woman: it instead labels certain forms of femininity as wrong, or invalid.

If, in 'Silence', medical institutions conform to stereotypical standards of defining femininity, the FBI, reliant on medical science, is also somewhat culpable. A scene in the movie shows Jack Crawford temporarily adopting a sexist masculine persona in order to gain the trust of local law enforcement, scorning Clarice in the process. Clarice rightly admonishes him for it later, but they get results because of this act; in the movie, the FBI benefit from patriarchal power dynamics. Clarice's goal (what seems at first to makes 'Silence' an anti-patriarchal underdog story) is to become an agent of an institution like this. Lecter says: "Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual." This implies that Jame also desires mobility, believing the way she will achieve it is via the adoption of a version of femininity deemed institutionally wrong. Where I'm going with this- two women seek space in a place that is not typically for them, except Jame's mobility impinges on the idea of Clarice's triumph, and so they are pitted against each other.

Please don't accuse me here of watching the film with my eyes closed- I know that Jame Gumb did kidnap, starve, kill, and skin women for her own means. I know that her actions are indefensible (as are Lecter's and yet he is a beloved character (besides the point, besides the point)). You may ask why I've went to all this trouble to label Jame Gumb as transgender, as surely that makes the film more offensive. Hear me out.

Clarice eventually adopts stereotypically feminine characteristics to achieve her goal of institutional acceptance: it is only through her knowledge in typically feminine areas (sewing patterns), and her empathy with the female victims (whilst Crawford and co try to divine Bill's location using an unfeeling algorithm) that she tracks down Jame Gumb. Traditional femininity thwarts atypical femininity, and the female hero is granted acceptance into a male-dominated institution. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this doesn't appear to be the feminist story Demme thinks he's telling. However, Jame's capture, although granting Clarice access into the FBI, doesn't grant her security. Lecter's escape (enabled by wearing a 'false face' of law enforcement, a skin mask he has flayed from a prison guard) infringes on her newfound stability and may also mean that by subscribing to the ideas of what is 'acceptable' femininity, she has not escaped threats toward herself. Jame's character may not be as cut and dry as 'offensive trans representation' if considered a pawn in an overarching story about the institutional scapegoating of certain types of femininity (namely trans-femininity), to uphold sexist heteronormative ideals (especially considering that Jame herself was victimised by these ideals at the hands of medical institutions, resulting in her novel idea to kill and skin as a self-made transition).

I can't help but wonder how Jame Gumb would have worked in the universe of NBC's 'Hannibal' tv show, which has an overarching theme of 'becoming' at the violent expense of others. I also wonder why it's more acceptable to label some offensive trans villains, like Angela, as sympathetic, and completely lambast others. I can't help but wonder if it's because Angela looks like Felissa Rose and Jame looks like, well, Ted Levine.

Here's the unbiased portion of the review: I'm trans and I'm obsessed with horror villains. It's second nature to me to try and ascribe dual positive meanings on to these characters because, honestly, I think they're cool. Completely unpalatable, but cool nonetheless. I still think of that letterboxd review that says the author cries every time Angela speaks for the first time in 'Sleepaway Camp' near daily. I think about how cis-passing Angela can still not escape bullying and says "to hell with it all." I love the moth motif of Buffallo Bill. I love that she turns around the Frankenstein narrative so often forced upon trans women who have underwent many surgical procedures because she's doing everything externally. I love transgender villains because what's more fun than a villain- what's more celebrated in horror? I'll always go on the defensive for Buffalo Bill and Angela Baker because the contemporary opposite in trans characterisation is, in my opinion, becoming far too sanitised. I genuinely do appreciate trans representation in modern horror- things like 'Evil Dead Rise', 'Talk to Me', and 'Hellraiser' (2022)- but the new trend is to cast a trans actor in a role and leave their queer status mostly undiscussed in the film. Surely there's a middle ground between outright offensive and 'just there'. Anyway, happy Halloween transgenders. Don't forget that we are vilified for merely existing, so turn around and pour one out for real villains this October.